Friday, December 31, 2010

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let The Great World Spin
by Colum McCann

Though briefly distracted by an Atheist Christmas, I am so glad I spent the last week of 2010 immersed in Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin. Ever since the book popped up on one of Powell’s Daily Dose emails, late 2009, it sat on top of my ‘To Read’ list. Unfortunately, my ‘To Read’ list is often the ‘Books I Mean to Buy and I Swear I’ll Do It When I Have the Cash’ list as well. And the list continues to grow. Luckily, Random House was kind enough to send it to me a few months ago. Full Disclosure: This book reviewing gig can be pretty fantastic sometimes.

But back to my original point — This book is well worth the time, cover price, and its National Book Award. Circling around Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers, McCann weaves together the fragile connections between eleven New Yorkers. It is both a story of its time and a thoughtful 9/11 allegory in which grief, passion, and observance are at the root of every character.

The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before.

Out he went.

Sticky and warm, all of New York feels real — the hookers’ swimsuits, the blisters inside too-big shoes, the crunch of metal, and the shouts within the boroughs. And though I don’t quite know how to summarize the connections between all eleven characters, each voice remains its own. Corrigan, the conflicted Catholic monk, sounds different from his brother Ciaran. Fernando the fourteen-year-old photographer, landscape artist Lara, mourning mother Claire, her downtown judge husband, mother and daughter prostitutes Tillie and Jazzlyn — how do I accurately provide a picture of their lives without revealing too much?

Freedom was a word everyone mentioned but none of us knew. There wasn’t much left for anyone to die for, except the right to remain peculiar.

McCann never identifies Philippe Petit by name, but he does take some fictional liberties in establishing his inner monologue. We see his thoughts before stepping out onto the wire, we see him feeling the air while training in Montana, and we know his peace when his feat has finished.

They were crowding him, shouting for his name, for his reasons, for his autograph. He stayed still, looking upward, wondering how the onlookers had seen it: what line of sky had been interrupted for them. A journalist in a flat white hat shouted, “Why?” But the word didn’t come into it for him. He didn’t like the idea of why. The towers were there. That was enough.

Though I spent just one afternoon in New York in 1994, I still feel the pang of possibility whenever I see photos of the towers. We stood on that roof, my family and I, and I took a photo of my parents with the Empire State building in the background. A helicopter flew below us, and the wind flexed the antenna atop the other tower. We stared out to the Statue of Liberty, to Ellis Island, and then we returned to the ground. One of my parents’ friends, from New Jersey, stood waiting for us. She wouldn’t go up, she said. Not after the bombings. Sometimes I wonder if there was anyone on the roof when the planes hit. It seems so small, to think about myself when there were so many thousands affected more directly, but absence affects us all differently. The towers are gone. My dad is gone. There is a hole in the ground and a hole in my life, and what is there to say? Every day, someone is mourning the event that left them utterly gobsmacked.

She takes another long haul, lets the smoke settle in her lungs — she has heard somewhere that cigarettes are good for grief. One long drag and you forget how to cry. The body too busy dealing with the poison. No wonder they gave them out free to the soldiers. Lucky Strikes.

I read a lot of great books this year, but only a few did I know I would love from the first page, more than one set in New York City. Maybe at times sulking naysayers like to disparage the “New York Novel,” claiming that it’s all been done before, but I don’t know how anyone could reasonably believe that. In the United States’ most populous city, how could you possibly think that every story has been told? When the world is filled with short story collections depicting the most microscopic of events in two-bar towns, how is the expanse of five boroughs and 8.4 million people “overrated?” How is it any less real?

If anything, Let The Great World Spin is an antidote to that kind of contrary thinking. Whether or not we know it consciously, we are all connected. We share the same air — spouses, subway riders, café frequenters, best friends, and drunks — and somewhere there is a common thread. For as big as the world is, sometimes it doesn’t take much bring us together.

Read this book.

And Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Movies/Stuff I Watched, 2010 Edition


Sherlock Holmes (theater)**
Sunshine Cleaning *
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Were the World Mine (TV)
Rebecca (TV)
Shattered Glass (TV)
Catch Me If You Can (rewatch, TV)
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (TV)


Beethoven 2 (TV) (I have children. Don't you judge me!)
Kung Fu Panda


Crank 2 *
Californication, Season 2 (Disc 1) *


Californication, Season 2 (Disc 2) *
Star Trek *


The Natural (TV, rewatch, most of)
(500) Days of Summer
Stuart Little 2 (TV, most of)


The Hangover *


Casino Royale (TV, rewatch)
Toy Story 3 (theater)
Inception (theater) *
Good Dick


Persopolis *
True Blood (Season 2, Discs 1-3) *
Hot Tub Time Machine
Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog (streaming) *
In a Day (streaming)


True Blood (Season 2, Disc 4-5) *
101 Ways (Or The Things a Girl Will Do to Keep Her Volvo) (streaming)
Brokeback Mountain (streaming) **
Weeds (Season 5, streaming) *


Helvetica (streaming)
In The Loop *


The Philosopher Kings (streaming) *
Eureka (Seasons 1-3, streaming)
Survivors (Entire Series 1+2, streaming, why was this cancelled?) *
Torchwood (streaming) **


Robin Hood (BBC Series, streaming)
Torchwood (streaming) **
Zombieland (streaming) *

And soon to be added under December's heading is Iron Man 2. I will find that Netflix DVD somewhere around here. It's been here for 2 months, and we have never gotten around to it, what with all the streaming TV binging. As such, we've switched our Netflix account to streaming only for the time being and will save ourselves the $2 a month. We can always switch it back later. Still, they need that DVD back.

** Indicates my favorite things I saw this year.
-Sherlock Holmes was tons of fun and full of pretty, so I'm not much bothered if you didn't like it.
-Torchwood is fantastic and I have some more "official" thoughts to post about it soon. Go stream it now, please
-Brokeback Mountain, though watched this far after its release, broke my damn heart, to the point where I see a photo of Jake Gyllenhaal and get all misty-eyed. THANKS.

* Indicates things that were very good and I would wholeheartedly recommend them.

Anything re-watched is more or less a recommendation. Either that, or like a horrible freakshow/accident, I couldn't look away. You be the judge.

The strangest movie I saw this year, by far, has to be Good Dick. It has Jason Ritter as a video store clerk, and he has a very strange relationship with a psychologically odd woman who comes into the store. The description on the sleeve doesn't really convey the strangeness. I don't know that I disliked it; I was more perplexed than anything. I'm sure someone more "arty" or prone to film snobbery could tell me how unenlightened I am to the so obvious themes/subtext/blahblahblah, but whatever. You might want to watch it, but you might not enjoy it, that's all I can say.

So there you are -- my compulsive list-making regarding Movies/TV for the year 2010. Stay tuned for the books roundup coming soon.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas
Edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers

I meant to have this review up by Christmas Eve. Christmas Day, at the latest. The thing is, I was busy celebrating . . . Christmas. I’m married to a Buddhist, my children aren’t baptized and I haven’t attended a church service (apart from weddings and funerals) since I was eight years old. Still, we celebrate. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, or if “ghosts” are bends in time during a quantum mechanical hiccup. I don’t know if Jesus was the Son of God or if he was a philosopher of his time whose ideas spread. Still, we celebrate. Call it force of habit due to my upbringing, call it “commercialization” of a “sacred” day, but I don’t see any problem in us enjoying the holiday. The way the modern world celebrates Christmas is such a hodgepodge of other historical winter holidays that anyone should be allowed to participate.

Besides, who doesn’t like presents? An excuse to eat and drink a lot? Time with family? Okay, maybe time with family isn’t always a selling point, but that’s where the food and drink help. Once you fall into a meat and alcohol-induced coma, the cold weather and crazy sister don’t seem as bad.

For my part I think the idea of a bit of time off, which we devote to those we care about, and to whom we give tokens of our love and thoughtfulness, is a good thing. A gift that is really well chosen shows how one has thought about the intended recipient and put to work one’s understanding of him or her, and one’s affection. To take time to think about such a gift, and then to find and buy it or even to make it, is a real mark of love. To set aside a dedicated time to be with people for whom one has deep feelings, time specifically for them and for the nourishing of one’s relationship with them, is both a fine and necessary act. So having a season in which we do these things is good, a genuine component of the overall good of life.
— A.C. Grayling, “A Happy Christmas”

Comprised of essays from 42 contributors (yes, that’s a deliberate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference on the editors’ part), The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas covers everything from scientific and historical thoughts regarding the holiday, to losses of faith and personal stories. Peppered with humor, it’s a quick, entertaining read. Probably what I enjoyed most about it was its reasoned, un-snarky approach to the subject matter. At no point does it devolve into petulant student arguments against religion, which are as bad as angry chuch-going judgements.

My first encounter with religion was when I was six years old. At school one day, my teacher informed me that I couldn’t be in the Christmas Nativity play because I wasn’t the “right religion.” I remember returning home, crying, devestated that all my friends were going to be having fun in rehearsals, and I would be left alone without their company at break time. And, more importantly — to a six-year-old wannabe actress — I would miss out on the fame and stardom from acting in the play, which was to be performed in front of the entire school. Not to mention not receiving the free sweets used as bribes by the staff for good behavior. I’d do anything for a strawberry cream, me.”
— Zoe Margolis, “Hark the Herald Villagers Sing

I’ll admit I did a bit of a double take when I saw the editor name “Stephanie Meyers,” which is so close to Mormon author Stephanie Meyer of Twilight, that I read her back cover bio first. She’s a New York book editor who is “an avid believer in receiving presents, decorating trees, and making the most of post-holiday sales.” She’s probably also sick of being confused with a vampire book that needs major editorial assistance.

The other editor, Robin Harvie, resides in London, and as such, the book is fairly evenly divided between United Kingdom writers and American ones. Though we share a language in the same way Spain and Cuba do, our way of celebrating Christmas does differ. The UK writers make mention of the Boxing Day buffet, whereas I think here we just refer to it as “the day we can’t believe we’re still gorging ourselves with leftovers.”

Somewhat predictably, I liked the bits from the British comedians the best. In Charlie Brooker’s essay “If God Existed, Would He Have a Sense of Humor?” I absolutely laughed out loud while reading the opening paragraph:

By any standards, God is a cooly uninvolved sort of character, content to sit back and watch as mankind has one bucket of peril after another tipped over its colletcive head. He witnesses deaths, disasters, wars, diseases, and the continued existence of Razorlight and doesn’t lift a finger to help, except to whisper murderous instructions into the mind’s ear of the occasional insane truck driver.

I hate Razorlight. Johnny Borrell can sod right off. Smug hipster bastard.

If anything, I’m faithful to the Church of Rock n Roll. I’ve said before that there is something otherworldly about a great song, as though it was pulled from the ether by magic -- That certain musicians seem to act as shamans in the way that they are able to write. Sometimes there seems to be no other explanation. More than one writer in the book mentions that, despite their atheism, they still quite like Christmas songs and some, like Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon, still attend Christmas church service for the music.

So while I may be a spiritual fence-sitter, I quite enjoyed The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and its content is varied enough to provide some intellectual fodder for most everyone, save the super-religious who won’t hear otherwise. It’s not an attack, just another way of thinking. Though we may be past Christmas now, I think it’s still a worthwhile winter read.

Full disclosure: This book was sent to me by Harper Perennial for review purposes. I thank them for the continued reading material and will continue to be fair in my reviews.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mini-Reviews: Books for Kids

Kids' books get a bit neglected in the world of online book reviews, and with Christmas coming up, you may be looking for one final thing to stuff in the kids' stockings that isn't more candy. Books! You can never have too many. Here are some I like, divided up (loosely) by age group, plus handy shopping links, if you need some overnight shipping assistance.


Albert's Alphabet by Leslie Tryon

If your kid is the type to be fascinated by illustrations, especially those with a lot of details to absorb, this is a good one. My 6 year old is the one who brought it home from the library because it looked "interesting," but my 3 year old is getting just as much enjoyment out of it.

Albert the duck has to build the entire alphabet in order to decorate the school walkway, and the book shows the clever ways in which he uses all 26 letters.

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

A classic. I loved this one when I was a kid, and it's the sort of book you can read to both your baby and your kindergartener. It's imaginative, still involves bedtime (the important part to emphasize, of course), and it gets kids thinking about what they would do if they had a magical crayon.

Baby, Make Me Breakfast by Lisa Brown

Lisa Brown has an entire "Baby Be of Use" 6 book series, including Baby, Do My Banking, Baby, Plan My Wedding, and Baby, Fix My Car. Though not really a gift for those more traditional/uptight parents, I find the whole series quite funny. And the kids just love the simple drawings and bright colors. All the books end with "Thank you, Baby!" Now if only I really could get my 3 year old to make my coffee in the morning...

Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes

I bought this book for my daughter for her first Christmas, when she was 9 months old. A first grader now, she still likes it. The illustrations are a lovely black/white/charcoal combination, and most any kid who likes cats will enjoy it. Henkes tells the story of a kitten who is convinced that the full moon is a bowl of milk, and so she spends the entire evening trying to "get" it. It's a story of perseverance without being preachy.

The Mouse and the Buddha by Kathryn Price

My husband is Buddhist, and at around 4, my daughter started expressing interest in Buddhism. I searched around for a book that would give her the basics, but would still hold her attention like a storybook. The Mouse and the Buddha fits this perfectly.

Tsi Tsi the mouse is wandering late at night, in search of a snack. He encounters the food left out for the Buddha, and ends up having a conversation with the Buddha about love, compassion and patience. As a result, Tsi Tsi decides that he should incorporate more kindness into his life. Even your most Christian relative should be able to find value in this lovely little hardcover.


The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming by Lemony Snicket

The reason I bump this one up into the Kindergarten age group is that there is a lot more text in this book compared to the previous books, though my 3 year old son still gets plenty of enjoyment out of this book. It will depend on the book-related attention span of your toddler as to whether or not they will enjoy this book.

And yes, this is another faith-based book, this time combining Christmas and Hannukah. However, for those of you a bit squeamish about religion, I can assure you that The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming is more about respecting each other's traditions, with a little dash of history thrown in. God and Jesus do not make appearances, but there is an evergreen who says, "Let me tell you a funny story about Pagan traditions."

Mostly, my kids like it for the screaming.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

My daughter reads well for a first grader, and so she's just now starting to move into chapter books that are not as reliant on illustration. I picked this book up at the library for her because of her interest in detective work. She read the entire thing within 2 days.

Asked what she liked about it, she said, "I don't know, I just liked it! I liked Harriet's little brother and the ugly old lady."

I also remember liking this one as a kid.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

I devoured every single Roald Dahl book my elementary school library had, way back when. (NOT SO way back when, I mean...) I have yet to introduce my daughter to Dahl's books, but I think she will like them. The Witches scared me, but in a good way. Children turning into mice? Witches EATING said mice? Madness!

It's also worth pointing out that the movie-version of this book paired with The Addams Family started my lifelong fascination with Anjelica Huston. I love her.

Middle Readers and Older

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My full review of this book can be found here, but in short, most kids with a good grasp on reading chapter books will enjoy this book. That is if they can get past the somewhat grisly murderer point-of-view in the opening chapter. As soon as the story moves on to the child's view, it gets much better. It's a great book about growing up and finding strength.

Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books by Francesca Lia Block

I think I was around 10 when I read these books for the first time. Over one summer, I amassed a stack of Block's books from the library (among others), and thoroughly loved them all. Thing is, I've never really been what you'd call a "fantasy" reader, and I wouldn't necessarily categorize her as traditional fantasy. Urban fantasy, maybe. I haven't read these stories in a long time -- though I've been meaning to reread them -- but I can remember feeling at home with her characters. She had musicians, crazy hair colors, people who weren't straight and lovelovelove all around. In some ways, the books might help a kid embrace their "difference" from the rest of the pack. These books are listed as 'Teen,' but again, it will depend on the maturity of your reader.

I apologize for my list slanting so heavily in the Toddler/Kindergarten section, but I still have young kids and my memory for specific books in my childhood is... fuzzy. I mean, unless you want me going on about all the Babysitter's Club, Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine that I read... 80s and 90s pulp classics, those.

Anyway, whatever holiday you celebrate, it never hurts to give a kid a new book. Happy reading.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Liner Notes #3: Suggested Gems

Liner Notes is my ongoing music column with Electric City Creative. Each issue, I post supplementary material to the column’s topic on this site. In Issue #3, I talk about the thrill of discovering new music.

Here then are some gems in my music collection for suggested listening:

1. "I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine" - Beth Orton

Beth Orton covers The Ronettes. From her album Trailer Park, it's a lovely little highlight near the end. I prefer it to the original, I must say. The original is too big and soaring for such a melancholy song, but I suppose that anything produced by Phil Spector is "big." Beth's understated arrangement gets it just right.

2. "Walk in Fire" - Doves

I know I regularly mention this song when referring to Doves, but listen to it. It's a great, great song. Really, do yourself a favor and get their album Some Cities. It's one of my all-time favorites.

3. Don't Burst My Bubble - Small Faces

I love, love, love this song. Small Faces didn't quite get enough love in the US during their time. You want to know the origins of BritPop? It's not all about the Beatles, kids. Give these lads a gander. As soon as I heard this song on a compilation CD I received with Q Magazine, I knew I had to include it my book.

4. "Early Morning Grey Sky Rain Cloud Blues" - The Asa Hawks

Their name taken from a character in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, The Asa Hawks are a Leeds band fronted by a friend of mine, Katy Raine. Influenced by Ryan Adams, Americana and Southern Gothic literature, the band has been playing around the Leeds area for the past year. They are currently unsigned, but you can download a selection of their songs on Reverb Nation. How lucky for me that my favorite song that I've heard so far is the one with a video. Do give them a listen.

5. "Some of These Days" - Andrew Bird

From his 1998 album Thrills, this lovely little closer features quite often in Andrew Bird's encores. When I saw him play in Spokane a couple years ago, he and tourmate Josh Ritter performed it to the packed Bing Crosby theater. Unfortunately, I don't have video of that particular performance, but this one will certainly do.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Self Portraits: Fictions by Frederic Tuten

Self Portraits: Fictions
by Frederic Tuten

I’m not going to lie — This book went a bit over my head. Though I did not feel dumb while reading it, I spent the entire time feeling as though I did not have the right points of reference. Filled with allusions to art and literature, Frederic Tuten’s Self Portraits: Fictions would likely be loved by a reader on the same mental trip, but that reader, despite some effort, was not me.

Still, Tuten’s interesting premise of representing himself through a series of short stories is worth praise. How often do writers say that, even though they deal mostly in fiction, so much of themselves is in that work? I do not know anything about Tuten apart from what his author bio tells me, but I concur with A.M. Holmes cover blurb that “experimental and deeply old-fashioned” is the best way to summarize these self-portraits. The writing is one long lucid dream where the characters talk like early twentieth century novels filled with upper class musings:

He was a fancy-talking waiter, who nursed us after we devoured the day devouring paintings. It was a strenuous life, if you were not built for it.

Am I supposed to laugh at that line? Because I did. It felt like a self-aware joke, but I’m not sure if it was. The ravenous couple wait for their dinner and have an equally amusing conversation:

We had been talking, before the waiter arrived, about beauty, its properties, its various manifestations in art. Before I could answer, she asked, “Is a slice of cheese beautiful, a work of art?”

“It depends,” I said, rather hastily, “on the color and texture and size, whether or not the surface is interrupted with perforations and, of course, there’s the factor of ‘whatnot.’”

“The ‘whatnot’ is crucial, of course,” she said.

Please tell me I am not the only one laughing. The ‘whatnot!’ It’s the grown-up version of undergraduates discussing the merits of Proust and their staunch localism while loitering in an all-night diner.

Back and forth I vacillated with my enjoyment of the book. While reading “Self Portrait with Bullfight,” I thought God, I hope the whole thing isn’t like this. Someone tell me whose style this is similar to so I’m sure never to read them. Harsh? Judge for yourself:

“We Spaniards all look alike,” he said, “especially in cloak-and-dagger darkness, when the flamenco shreds the sanity of night and renders it cuckoo.”

“Yes,” I said, “perhaps all Spaniards look alike in their brotherhood of despondent capes and sombreros blackened by the night, and with eyes of the same inky shade or related blackish hue, but you look especially familiar.”

“I am familiarity itself,” he said.

That cannot be written without tongue being firmly planted in cheek, right? See, this is where my creative reference points feel lacking — there’s an in-joke here I can sense, but I’m not sure what it is. I’m not sure I want to know what it is. That over-the-top literary conversation style is so rarely my bag, unless it comes wrapped thickly in farce.

However, Tuten would then bring me back around to appreciating the nostalgic wandering of the stories, the reflections of his past and what it means to be of the world. “The Park Near Marienbad” was one of the more affecting self-portraits for me, and it gave a greater sense of clarity to the stories surrounding it:

I would always remember the movies. [...] I would miss them all, but especially the film in which the mysterious woman the narrator pursues is bound to him by an immortal loop of repetitions and in which he is linked eternally to her by hopes endlessly unfulfilled and endlessly renewed.

During “The Park in Winter,” I did appreciate the conversation between the man and woman more, as they veered more into my territory of obsessive pondering. The woman says he misses everything “excessively,” including their old friend Henry. The first half of the story, while they are still in the restaurant, they were still a little too stiff and analytical with one another, but everything loosens once they head upstairs to their hotel room. The language even becomes more direct and less flowery — something I prefer — and they discuss the many forms of love.

“Shouldn’t the destination of human progress include the totality of pleasure of love? Shouldn’t we finally free ourselves of the tyranny of gender differences? What a loss of love, loving the opposite sex. Don’t you think? How much time is there to live, after all? And why pass it away in such constraints?”

Preach, Tuten. Preach. It’s a long way of saying, “love is a many splendored thing,” but these characters would not know brevity if it arrived on the tray of their ever present waiter.

For the right reader, I know Self Portraits: Fictions will be a good book. My under-enjoyment is not because of poor writing, poor execution or any other common attribute of a “bad” book, and I might be the wrong person to try and review it properly. One can probably tell from the excerpts I’ve quoted whether or not they are the reader for which the book aims, but please don’t be surprised when I say that I am glad to be starting something new.

Full disclosure: W.W. Norton sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the small marketing write-off towards my small site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.